Monday 3 December 2012

And they call it puppy love? - the history of boy heartthrobs - by Eve Edwards

I had a shock this afternoon.  I was singing along to Disney (yes, I know - sad) because my children have been playing the excellent song from the Chinese fairytale Mulan called 'To be a Man'.  (If you don't know it - listen to it for me as it makes me laugh every time - the joke being that they have sent a woman to do a man's job).  I digress.

Imagine my shock when I noticed who had sung the original track for the film: Donny Osmond.  What!  The Donny of my girlish infatuation - big brown eyes and luxurious dark hair? The Donny of 'Donny and Marie'?  How I used to croon 'Paper Roses' as if my heart was breaking (I was about six so please give me a break).  The Donny with the host of less hunky brothers who all thought they were rock stars (remember 'Crazy Horses' anyone?).  Donny was up there on my bedroom wall with the other gorgeous guy of the time - David Cassidy.  (I hope in the comments you are all going to confess similar infatuations; I don't want to be alone here, girls and boys.)

Reminded of this 70s hottie, I of course had to google him.  He is still going strong in Vegas (where else?) but I now noticed that his youthful photos showed him to be a dead ringer for today's Justin Bieber.  I promise on my hamster's grave that I will no longer mock the teeny boppers' love for this baby faced pop star - I now completely understand the attraction.

Justin Bieber?  No, it's Byron c. 1802
by Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun
My trip down memory lane led me to think about the history of girlish adoration of lovely young men - not something that makes it in to the history books but, come on, isn't it more interesting than Corn Law Reform?  Is there a connection between the development of mass media, leisure and girls' reading with the rise of the hottie?  That's my thesis anyway.  The first serious contender I could think of was Lord Byron. Other stars had briefly had their day on the stage, mainly in London, but he was the one whose countenance graced the equivalent of bedroom walls nationwide.  He even reached international fame in his lifetime.  We all know Caroline Lamb's quip that Bryon was 'Mad, bad and dangerous to know' - but she was on to something, wasn't she?  Even with the scandal attached to his name, every red blooded young lady wanted to know Byron and dreamt of his Corsair.  He was more a Mick Jagger than a Donny, but his image was arguably as famous as his work.  Just look at the iconic pictures of him and the stories that attached to his legend.  One I remember was that he was said to keep a bear while at Trinity College, Cambridge because it was not disallowed in the rules against pets. Eat your bat heart out, Meat Loaf.   Byron went on extreme diets then binged.  He abused various substances and slept with all sorts.  He was exiled for bad behaviour.  He died young(ish) in a semi-heroic way - of fever but while fighting for Greek independence. He, m'lud, anticipated rock-stardom.

The commentators of the late eighteenth century coined a word to describe what happened to these literary rock gods - to lionise.  Accounts talk of these writers coming into the saloons as lions coming among the ordinary folk - hence the word.  Walter Scott - NOT a hottie in my book - was perhaps the most celebrated one. Worship of him reached the period's equivalent of screaming, panties-throwing crowds yelling for Tom Jones - odd to think of now that Scott had fallen out of fashion. The key development was the rise of mass media to publicise their works.  The old patronage system had been replaced by commercial publishers who had an interest in puffing their authors' reputations, building excitement for the next new work.  The (male) authors became the story.

Harriette Wilson - a lady of experience
There's an interesting contrast here to the experience of female writers who did everything in their power to remain anonymous.  The most famous woman writer of this period in terms of celebrity status was not Jane Austen but the notorious Harriette Wilson, courtesan, whose memoirs inspired another most famous quote, this time from Wellington: 'publish and be damned!'.  To be known as a female writer was a very mixed blessing; safer to take on a male pseudonym as many did.

You will have spotted the weakness in my argument.  Byron was really an older girl's infatuation.  He would have despised an Osmond or a Bieber, I fear.  So when did the teeny ones get their chance to languish over portraits?  I'm wondering if they had to wait until they were allowed out to the pictures, children's literature and music being heavily policed in the Victorian era.  Maybe they had to wait for the likes of Creighton Hale who starred in Snow White - the 1916 version. According to Wiki, after playing the prince, he went on to a porn career (innocently I didn't imagine there was such a thing as a silent movie porn star).

So my question to you: does anyone know when pre-teen infatuations began?  I'd love to know your thoughts.


adele said...

Very interesting! I have no idea when pre teen infatuation begins but I'm sure young girls have since the beginning of time had an eye for young boys. Lots of girls married very young also, didn't they, back in antiquity. I'm sure Caroline L will tell us whether Roman kids fancied gladiators...

Ann Turnbull said...

It was Tommy Steele and Elvis back in the 1950s - but we were 14 by then. I never fancied pop stars myself - preferred fictional people. When I was very young it was Peter Pan. Later, I adored David Balfour.

Susan Price said...

Roman ladies certainly liked gladiators, Adele! - Even though said gladiators were rather chubbier and chunkier than our taste in heart-throbs today. (A layer of fat was considered a protection against serious wounds.) It was the 'bit of rough' appeal.
I think Eve is right about heart-throbs and pin-ups beginning with the age of mass publication - and gathering speed with films. Anyone fancy Rudolph Valentino?

I've thought about this myself, and I think, before mass publication, not enough people would be able to see and admire any particular hottie. You could be, say, the most beautiful man or woman at court - but outside court circles, no one would know what you looked like.
I've considered this when writing my Sterkarm books. Per Sterkarm is supposed to be the stuff of pin-ups - but, living in the Debateable Land of the 16th Century, would he even have a very clear idea of what he looked like himself? If he had a mirror, it wouldn't be a very good one.
I like to imagine that the girls of his immediate neighbourhood would be very keen on him - and would perhaps hang around, giggling, in places they might see him - but the girls of 50 miles away would be quite ignorant of his existence.

And Ann - I was very keen on Davy Balfour too! I've never seen him and Alan Breck cast well in a film. They always, for instance, forget that Davy is the taller!

Quelle Books said...

I think another interesting question is when did pre-teen or teen life begin? The further you go back in history it seems as though this time of life wasn't recognized. People were babies then children then adults. It seem like mid-20th century did they really start to become recognized as pre-teens and teens especially with young girls becoming infatuated with movie stars and starting fan clubs.

You raise a really interesting question! I loved the post.

Essie Fox said...

I wanted to BE Peter Pan!

Laura said...

Very interesting - what does make a hottie?

I always like looking at artworks from various ages becasue you end up looking at what would be a snapshot of what's considered perfection at that time. I love looking at a woman with a heavily-plucked hairline and hennin in a masterpiece, then comparing it to the tousled looks you spot in all the ads now. Or even an impossible, lily-white beauty in some romantic portrait, and today's occasional over-Tango-ed men and women!

Fascinating how tastes change!

Jason said...

In Roman times, it was the men that were interested in the boy heartthrobs, with Antinous obtaining empire-wide fame after his posthumous deification by Emperor Hadrian.